The shape of noise to come
How Sonic Youth changed one man’s perception of music … while changing the face of music forever
How to explain the importance of music in the life of a 41-year-old former record store clerk? Or in this case, how would I and why would I feel compelled to tell complete strangers what a particular band means to me?
I had already met the woman who would become my wife, but it was still too soon to frame her picture for my desk. Instead I hung an 81/2-by-11-inch black-and-white glossy of Sonic Youth at the elementary school where I taught. The other teachers had pleasantly framed photos of their children or spouses—I had a photo of my very favorite band on display, and my curious students would walk by and say in a slightly disgruntled tone, ‘Sonic what?? Youth??
The first time I heard Sonic Youth was on a cassette sent to me by the roommate of a friend attending UC Santa Barbara. Over the phone we talked for hours of REM, The Feelies and The Replacements. She recorded me Sonic Youth’s EVOL. I was fascinated and a little scared by what I was hearing. Guitars didn’t sound like guitars. Traditional verse-chorus structures were jettisoned in favor of developing mood and sound in a manner that was completely unknown to me. The Minutemen’s Mike Watt’s spoken word over car crash guitar theatrics on ‘In the Kingdom #19” clashed against the monumental sound of the Kim Gordon-sung ‘Starpower.”
It was the album’s closing that proved so completely hypnotic, with guitarist Thurston Moore issuing perhaps the boldest mission statement, declaring ‘We’re gonna kill the California girls” amidst the thundering, chiming opening chords of ‘Expressway to Yr Skull.” Subtitled ‘Madonna, Sean and Me,” the song exemplified the freedom I was seeking by figuratively tearing down all that came before.
Superficial walls of traditionalism were gone. The veil on the lie we all accepted—that music actually had to sound a certain way—was lifted. I never knew that the concept of music could be questioned. Music immediately mattered more to me than anything else ever had in my life.
When I first moved to Chico in 1987 I had few friends, but working at Sundance Records changed all that. I met people who worked at Tower Records and played in bands such as The Downsiders, The Shilohs and Vomit Launch. I went to parties where albums like The Swans’ Children of God and Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising never left the turntable. Chico’s bourgeoning underground music scene revered and celebrated NYC’s Sonic Youth on a nightly basis. A steady diet of varied drugs, cheap beer and underground rock would manifest itself via our town’s Downsiders, who magnificently tinkered with alternative tunings and dark themes through the course of two albums, marrying melody and extremism. Sonic Youth had become the measuring stick by which the underground rock world was measuring itself.
It was with these new friends that I saw Sonic Youth at San Francisco’s Fillmore in September of 1987. The band was touring to support the record Sister. The friends I had caught a ride with had vanished into the rafters of the auditorium during the opening sets from Angst and Firehose. Any feelings of abandonment were quickly forgotten when Sonic Youth took the stage and launched into the stunning and sublime “Schizophrenia,” dedicating it to Barbara Manning, whom Thurston Moore called San Francisco’s greatest songwriter. The entire performance was spectacular, culminating with Moore putting down the guitar and putting on his best Joey Ramone impersonation and ripping through a medley of “Beat on the Brat,” “Loudmouth” and “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.”
Over the years, I can count myself as having seen Sonic Youth 10 times, including under the stars at The Greek Theatre and a Tower Records parking lot (highlighted by a particularly enthused Thurston Moore chucking fat jelly donuts into the crowd). I had seen sets end quietly, even sweetly, and others with jaw-dropping crescendos and lengthy strobe-lit noise jams (noteworthy was a Halloween rendering of “Silver Rocket” lasting 20 minutes-plus, with the final leg seeing Moore bashing his guitar against the orange pylon he planted firmly on his head).
After 25 years of existence, Sonic Youth can still provoke that same exact feeling of astonishment and wonder I felt the very first time I heard them on vinyl or witnessed a live performance. To know that the dialogue had yet to be exhausted almost leads me to believe that magic does indeed exist in this lifetime. It’s a matter of where it’s found … and for me, it was sound.
It was Glenn Branca’s Neutral Records that released Sonic Youth’s debut in 1982. The recording, though cleaner than later releases, with its churning, chiming rhythms and impressionistic lyrics, artistically challenges what society had grown to expect from an electric-guitar-powered rock band.
Thurston Moore and guitarist Lee Renaldo had spent time performing with Branca, who organized and recorded guitar “orchestras” sometimes numbering up to 16 guitars, many of them utilizing nontraditional tunings, which continues to serve as one of the primary tools in Sonic Youth’s compositional tool box.
In the early years, Sonic Youth’s albums were more experimental and less pop. Confusion is Sex (1983) proved inescapably dark, claustrophobic and noisy, its album cover illustration featuring a stark black with white stick drawing, set the tone. Following that was 1985’s Bad Moon Rising, a harsh fever dream, with one song aurally bleeding into the next, while amps buzzed, feedback blazed and “Death Valley ‘69” ended it all in a gory nod to the Manson Family, a confused nation of sound ripped apart by climbing tension and violent release. EVOL (1986) fully explored the band’s experimental side within the pop-song format. It also introduced drummer Steve Shelley (from hardcore punk band The Crucifucks) who has remained with the band since. Sister (1987) and the critically lauded double album Daydream Nation (1988) came and went, seeing an end to the indie-label era for Sonic Youth.
The band signed to Geffen in the ‘90s, releasing Goo (1990) to widespread acclaim. The album showed a more refined pop-era dawning for Sonic Youth, with the noise used mainly for dynamic and dramatic nuance. The band went on to release nine more records including 1992’s Dirty; the New York City Trilogy A Thousand Leaves (1998), NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000) and Murray Street (2002); and has just released its latest, Rather Ripped, in addition to contributions to film soundtracks (French director Oliver Assayas’ Demonlover and Made in the USA) and numerous compilation appearances. Also during this time period, the band released a series of experimental, instrumental recordings on its own SYR imprints, which allowed the members to continue exploring without any sort of constraint suggested by the pop-music marketplace.
Sonic Youth may have been the olive branch offered between NYC’s gloried punk days and its confrontational No-Wave scene. Sonic Youth grew from the ambiguous netherworld between the past (Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Suicide) and a future too dark and violent to survive (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance, DNA).
And being a band for more than 20 years, the members of Sonic Youth have always seen their influence as an opportunity to help younger bands. Many tours have seen the band bring Nirvana (on the eve of Nevermind exploding), Laughing Hyenas, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Deerhoof and Pavement to the public eye and ear. To only consider Sonic Youth’s influence extending through its music would sell the band far short.
Of course, there are those who see the band as a sham, an unwelcome pose. A good friend of mine once insisted that Sonic Youth so blatantly “ruined” music with its noise and dissonance that, in turn, had influenced lesser bands. I knew there had to be others who agreed … like the countless customers I would help at the record store who would grimace in pain upon entering the store to hear Smog or Will Oldham over the speakers, and respond, “You should stick on some real music! Like some Floyd, Zeppelin! Dude, can I see the smoke shop?”
Imagine a world without Sonic Youth, and you would be imagining a world without My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana and Modest Mouse. You would probably also have to imagine a world that never had a Velvet Underground, Stooges, or Ramones. In essence, the world would be ruled by music whose artistic parameters were so tightly guarded, that surprise and the joy in discovery would be impossibly and painfully limited.
I guess you could say that after 20 years of following Sonic Youth, I find them as relevant and, perhaps, even more important to me than in the past. Recent shows in Reno and Sacramento proved the band to be as expressive and animated as ever, bending songs and situations to ride the euphoric wave to its peak and plaster it in an ecstatic mess.
Sonic Youth executed on its belief that music had barely begun to be explored, a fact that inspired perhaps as many garage bands that swallowed some inspiration from The Velvet Underground years back. Sonic Youth gave me belief—maybe the sole impetus that keeps me seeking out new sounds, new music, new ideas, bands and artists striving to say something new. And yet with all of its members approaching 50 and beyond, Sonic Youth still holds that precious gift: to believe. And so they do.